Nathan Jacobi, Ph.D., Interview—Part I

Nathan Jacobi, Ph.D., has served as a Hebrew consultant and translator for Bible Code Digest since 1999. The validity of the ELS extensions found by Dr. Jacobi is directly dependent on his knowledge of Hebrew, so R. Edwin Sherman, Director of BCD, conducted an interview of him on December 1, 2008 to discuss his life and his background in Hebrew. This interview is the first of a series. Jacobi is pictured on the right.

Childhood: A Holocaust Survivor

Sherman: Tell us about your life. Where were you born, and where have you lived?

Jacobi: I've spent various periods of time in three different countries, on three different continents. The first seven years of my life were spent in France, and then I spent about 24 years in Israel (1945-1969), where I was educated. By the way, Israel is technically in Asia, although culturally it is probably more like Europe than Asia. After that, I lived most of my life, about 37 years (1969-2006), in the U.S. on the West Coast, mostly in California, some in Oregon, and two-and-a-half years ago, it was time to start closing the circle, and I moved back to Israel.

Sherman: What was it like living in France as a young child?

Jacobi: I was born on the French/German border in a large city that is known today as Strasbourg. Strasbourg is the main city in Alsace-Lorraine, a region that has changed back and forth between France and Germany, depending on the outcome of any given war during the last 200 years. My parents were students from eastern Europe, who were studying in Italy and France. On my first birthday, World War II broke out. The city was then French. The Germans were threatening the area, so my parents decided to escape to a safe place inside France. They were assuming that farther from the border would be safe, but little did they know that the Germans would occupy almost all of Europe. So, we spent the war years in southern France.

Sherman: You spent the war years in southern France, but did your parents leave and go somewhere else?

Jacobi: At first, we were all together. We lived in a reasonably well-known town in southern France by the name of Limoges. I didn't have brothers or sisters, so it was just my parents and I. We lived modestly under the shadow of the war.

The dangerous part came the last year of the war, because the Nazis realized that they were losing the war. They were very upset with the French collaborators that they felt did a lousy job on helping them solve the Jewish problem.

At that time, my parents decided it was better to put me in a safer place, so they found a German family who had a small ranch in the forest. They were anti-Nazi. My parents thought the safest place to put a Jewish kid would be with a German anti-Nazi family.

What was interesting about this family was that they had a 20-year-old son who fought in the French Resistance, against the Nazis, so here was a German youth fighting with the French Resistance against his own people.

The ranch was not far from a village with a small river going through it, whose residents hid a few Jewish kids. The Nazis discovered them, and as the local people would not collaborate, the Nazis decided to teach them a lesson. They took half the population, on one side of the river, placed them in the local church, and burnt the place down. This has been ingrained in French memory for many decades.

At this time, they started to pick up the Jews they could find, and they sent them to concentration camps. It so happened that my father was twice on the list to go to a concentration camp. He had some acquaintances in the French militia who knew him, and they found some bureaucratic excuses to cross his name off of the list, so that is how his life was spared. If he had gone, he never would have survived it.

By the way, I am really a World War II veteran. On the farm, I was in charge of the animals, and I used to walk in front of them and show them the way. One day a billy goat thought I was invading his territory, so he got me with his horns and tossed me to the ditch at the roadside. This hurt both my butt and my ego, and I never repeated this stupid act again.

While I lived with them, they did change my name. My name, of course, was Nathan, as it has been all my life. Nathan was kind of a little suspicious, a little dangerous, so my name was changed from Nathan to Marcel. I spent that last part of the war basically hiding away as Marcel.

Sherman: And what did they do with the name Jacobi?

Jacobi: At that time, we had a German-Polish name. The name was Langinger, so the name was OK. It didn't raise any suspicions. Jacobi is the name we adopted after we moved to Israel, after the war. In the 1950s, it was the fashion to give names with Hebrew sounds. My father named us after his own father, whose name was Jacob, and Nathan was the other grandfather from my mother's side. So, I was named after two of my grandfathers.

Sherman: Did you know any of your grandparents, or were they killed in the war?

Jacobi: I never met any of my grandparents. I don't even know what it is to have grandparents. It's strange today to have grandchildren, and I've never experienced having grandparents.

My father was the oldest of a family of eight. And only he and a younger brother survived the war. My father went to western Europe to study, and his younger brother went to Palestine. It was then under British rule. They were the only ones that were saved. All the rest of the family stayed in eastern Europe, because they had a family business there. They were all slaughtered.

The Holocaust has not been properly analyzed. There are holocausts today in different parts of the world, so we are always facing it, and saying what have we learned from The Holocaust during World War II? And what about all of these other holocausts including earlier on between the Turks and the Armenians? That is still a hot issue among those people. There are holocausts in Africa and all over the place, so this is ongoing.

Education and Life in Young Israel

Sherman: Was it right after the war that you moved to Palestine?

Jacobi: Right. The war ended in May 1945. In July, we moved to Palestine. I was almost seven years old, and I arrived there not knowing a word of Hebrew. I spoke only French. That was quite fascinating, because they didn't know what to do with me. I didn't go to school in France, because we were so busy surviving the war. So, I never attended kindergarten or first grade. Those are gaps in my education that I have to this day. The education authorities decided to put me in the second grade without me knowing a single word of Hebrew, so it was literally a situation of sink or swim, and I decided that I might as well swim.

Sherman: That sounds very difficult.

Jacobi: Yes, but at that age, young children can learn a language very quickly. In two or three months, I knew the language. In fact, I found myself at the top of the class, and never looked back. All my life, I've had strong linguistic tendencies, which has helped.

Sherman: Are there any interesting parts of your education from the second grade through high school?

Jacobi: I would say that my high school was probably the best school I attended in my life. It is very interesting because people usually think more about their college days, and for me, the peak in my own education was high school. I went to one of the best high schools in Israel, and the education was at a very high level. About half of the teachers had Ph.D.s in the subjects they taught. Today, as you well know, that is no longer the case, but then, every teacher had at least a master's degree in the subject that they taught, and the school was top level.

This unique high school taught us to think independently, to ask meaningful questions, and that the process of posing the right questions was more important than the attempt of finding shallow answers. I believe I had a very broad education in both the classics and humanities, and in science and math. I received the broadest possible view of human culture in high school. Then, in college and graduate school my studies got gradually narrower and narrower. I started learning more and more about less and less.

Sherman: Do you mean your focus was then more on physics and math?

Jacobi: Yes. But I'm talking about having a general wide knowledge, or a desire to embrace everything. This kind of expanding view of education was what I had in high school, and then it got kind of gradually more and more focused.

Sherman: Now, at what point in your university career did you turn to physics and math? Was that right away, or did you switch majors?

Jacobi: In high school, I knew that math was my favorite subject. I also liked ancient history and ancient languages, but I knew I would probably go into science and math. In high school, I had a classical education, and it really worked, because I studied so much literature, languages and history. Then in college, I started concentrating more and more on math and physics, so those ended up being my majors in college. All my formal education was in Israel, in Hebrew, so Hebrew became my dominant language, and to date, is quite possibly the language I know best.

Sherman: What degrees did you receive?

Jacobi: I received a Ph.D. in Physics from Weizman Institute of Science in Rehovot, an M.Sc. in Physics, and a B.Sc. in Mathematics from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan. In graduate school, I served as an interpreter (from English to Hebrew) of courses taught at the Weizman Institute of Science.

As a college professor with more than 30 years of research, development and scientific computing in applied physics, aerospace and geophysics, I've taught atomic and molecular physics, quantum mechanics, college algebra, trigonometry and analysis, analytic geometry and calculus—in Israel and the U.S.

Career and Life in the U.S.

Sherman: Did you work in Israel as a physicist or mathematician after getting your doctorate, or did you do that after you came to the United States?

Jacobi: I didn't come right away to the U.S. I spent the first year-and-a-half teaching physics at the Tel Aviv University. After that, I came for a post-doctoral fellowship to the U.S. So, most of my professional work in physics, in applied physics and applied math, was done in the U.S.

Sherman: And where did you work after that?

Jacobi: I ended up working at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology] in Pasadena for about 20 years. I was working on data and experiments for space flights. They were initially done on airplanes that flew in parabolic trajectories simulating zero gravity, and many of those were done in space rockets, and ultimately ended up being done on the shuttle. So, I was involved in a lot of theoretical work, data analysis and experiments involved with different applications of that sort.

Sherman: During that time, when you were at JPL, did you continue to use much Hebrew, or was that a period when you used less of it?

Jacobi: I used it. It just came naturally. Though initially I spoke French as a child, Hebrew has always been my first language.

Even though everything else was done in Hebrew, in Israel the technical textbooks were in English, and there were visiting lecturers and scientists from English-speaking countries. So, I've used English quite a bit, but the dominant language in my life was still Hebrew. Hebrew was so ingrained in me.

Following such an extensive Hebrew education, including all periods of the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, Traditional and Modern Hebrew, and graduating as valedictorian from HS and with Summa Cum Laude from college—a high level of Hebrew sticks with you for life, whether you want it or not. So, as much as I used English more and more, I didn't forget any of the Hebrew.

After living in southern California for 27 years, I moved to southern Oregon, to Ashland, and lived there for 10 years, between 1996 and 2006. There, I became involved more with the Jewish community. I taught Hebrew there, and I began as a consultant for Bible Code Digest (BCD). So, my use of Hebrew increased, compared to my time in California.

Sherman: About how many years did you teach classes in Hebrew?

Jacobi: About six years. The classes were usually mixed classes. The students who were interested in Hebrew were sometimes Jewish, sometimes Christian. So, I taught in a Jewish congregation, and I taught in a church in Ashland. The classes were open to everybody who wanted to learn Hebrew. It was intended for people who were eager to pick up the language for one reason or another, whether they were Jewish or Christian.

I particularly enjoyed my contact with Christian students who wanted to learn Hebrew. They were somewhat at a disadvantage, because among people who don't have any background in Judaism the knowledge of Hebrew is fairly weak, so it is very complicated work. But many Christian students were motivated, because they wanted to be able to understand the stories about Jesus and his disciples, and they wanted to be able to read it in Hebrew.

It was interesting to see how enthusiastic and excited students would become. For example, one of my favorite things, but it required at least a couple of years of background in Hebrew to do, was to teach the Sermon on the Mount to Christians students in Hebrew. From my perspective, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, a Jewish teacher. Sometimes when I want to cause a little suspense or tease people, I refer to Jesus as the most famous Jewish rabbi in history, and people don't always know what I am talking about. From my perspective, the Sermon on the Mount is a thoroughly Jewish document. You can go over it verse by verse and relate each verse to its origin in the Tanakh, in the Old Testament, and it is obvious that it is a direct continuation of the Jewish teachings, so when I teach or explain the verses in the Sermon on the Mount, to me it is obvious that it is a thoroughly Jewish document.

Sherman: Back to your final years in Pasadena, I know you taught at Pasadena City College for awhile. Is that after you left JPL?

Jacobi: No. That was while I was still working at JPL, but they also wanted me to teach, so I ended up teaching at Pasadena City College (PCC).

Sherman: And were you teaching mathematics there?

Jacobi: Yes. I was teaching math, algebra, trig, analytic geometry, calculus, basically lower division college math.

Marriage and Family

Sherman: When did you meet Rhea? When did you get married?

Jacobi: We met in Israel. That was the year before we left Israel, and it was when I taught at Tel Aviv University. I still went to some lectures in humanities, and that was what Rhea was studying at the time, so we met in some classes that we took together, and we started chatting and talking, and we ended up dating and courting and getting married. We met early in '68. We got married in late '68. In late '69, we left Israel, and came to the U.S.

Sherman: What proportion of time did you speak Hebrew to one another and what proportion English?

Jacobi: It all depended on who was around us. If there was no company, if it was just us, it was strictly Hebrew. When there were people around that did not understand, even our own children who were born and raised in the U.S. or other friends who did not know Hebrew, then it was English. That is why we have used both languages freely and interchangeably all the time.

Sherman: Did your children learn much Hebrew growing up, or were they taught English early on?

Jacobi: I tried to give them a little bit of background in Judaism or take them to the synagogue, but they didn't show any interest when they were younger—when they finished middle school and went high school. They considered us old-fashioned, from the old country, and that all that did not apply to them.

I can tell you an anecdote. When our older son was eight or nine, he had friends visiting him, and one of his friends asked him, "What is this strange language that your parents speak?" He told his friend, "Oh, my parents use this strange language Hebrew. They are from Israel, but they are OK, they also speak the language of the land."

They really wouldn't have anything to do with it, and I could see they were like a very large segment of American Jews, not much of Judaism will stick with them.

My son graduated from U.C. Berkeley, and my daughter attended Reed College, in Portland, and ended up graduating from the University of Oregon, at Eugene. The strange thing was, when they were both graduating, they found that something was missing. They didn't feel at home. They started looking for something.

Even though my son Leor graduated with a bachelor's degree in artificial intelligence, he got job offers, but he didn't want to take any of them. He decided to become a social activist, and he fought for various causes. He became a vegan, an extreme form of vegetarianism, and he fought for animal rights. The last cause he fought for involved Native Americans. He has studied their literature. He went to reservations where they lived in northern California, and would spend days and weeks there, and would talk with their people. Then, while talking with some of the elders, they used to tell him, "Leor, you come to us. You visit us. You spend so much time with us, but then, you don’t really tell us who are you and what tribe you belong to." He came back with this question, and he was perplexed and preoccupied by it. So, he came back to the Bay area in California, and he went back to the Jewish community.

In fact, he went to a Chabad community. Chabad is an outreach community of orthodox or ultra-orthodox Jews. They want to take Jews who have strayed from Judaism and bring them back. My son went there and met the rabbi and started talking with him. So my son, after all his contact with the American Indians, just became curious enough and ripe enough to do that. He started working and studying, and in two or three years he decided to become an orthodox Jew, and he decided the only meaningful place for him to be was in Israel. So back in '96-'97, he went to Israel, and he has ended up staying here and raising his family here.

His sister Joelle, who is four years younger, did the same. She followed him. She did it her own way, not in exactly the same way, but the upshot of all that is both of them are, I like to coin my own expressions, they're in a sense born-again Jews. I am of course coining it after born-again Christians. When I mention it to my children, they hate this expression. They just don't want to hear it, but I have my own ways of putting things, and there is nothing wrong with this expression, because they are literally born-again Jews.

Sherman: Well, you're talking about them having a significant conversion experience.

Jacobi: Yes. That is correct. That is why I think whether you are a born-again Christian or a born-again Jew, it is a profound experience, and I don't see anything wrong in this comparison. I'm borrowing words that are more common in one application and applying it another.

Life in Israel Now

Sherman: Why did you move back to Israel?

Jacobi: We moved back to Israel about two years ago. One reason was because our children came here and are raising their families here. They told us, "Well, you are now at or past retirement age, and you are not getting younger, and the natural thing would be for you to come to Israel and live near us, so we can be in contact, and we can help you a little bit when necessary." So, that is the main reason we moved.

Sherman: When you get together with your children now, do you speak Hebrew or English, or some mixture?

Jacobi: My children speak both languages, but they still prefer English, because they come from an English-speaking background. I try to pressure them to speak Hebrew, but there is a tendency among the English-speaking community in Israel, most of them from the U.S., and some from other countries like the U.K., Australia, and South Africa, there is a tendency among English-speaking Jews to stick to English, so my children have fallen into that as well.

I find myself using Hebrew more than my own children. So much so, that we had an interesting incident with our daughter. There was a salesman that came by, and he noticed that we speak Hebrew, and that our daughter has this strong American accent and prefers to speak English. So he didn't say a word, but afterwards he told us, "What is going on? Why does your daughter speak English, and you speak Hebrew." So, we explained it to him, and he said, "Well I was under the impression that you are Israeli and that she is not really your daughter—that she is your adopted daughter." It was very funny.

My children feel a little more at home in English. I feel equally at home in both languages, but Hebrew is the richer language of the two. English is a very prosaic language. Hebrew is full of images and poetry. So, I think I prefer to speak Hebrew, but of course, I use both languages equally.

Sherman: Where do you live in Israel? What region? What city?

Jacobi: I live in the region called East Benjamin. Benjamin is in between Judea and Samaria. This is where the tribe of Benjamin was residing. Of course, in the Bible there was the kingdom of Judea that was Judea and Benjamin, and then there was the kingdom of Israel that was the remaining tribes.

I live in a community that is something between a large village and a small town, a very small town. The name is koh-khav ha'shah-har (), and koh-khav is the Hebrew word for star, and shah-har is the Hebrew word for morning or dawn, so it means Morning Star or Star of the Dawn.

It is a religious community. Most of the residents are orthodox observing Jews. The community has around 3,000 people. Our daughter happens to live here with her family, and we all decided that it was the best place for us. The other option might have been to live in Jerusalem, where the rest of our family is, but Jerusalem is a big crowded city, and we feel much more at home in a small rural community than in the big city.

Sherman: Are you right next to Ramallah?

Jacobi: No. It is about 15 or 20 minutes drive by car, so we are not very near Ramallah, but we are in an area where there are Arab villages all around us.

Sherman: What is the closest Arab village? How far away is that?

Jacobi: The closest place to us is a Jewish village, but if you go a little farther away, about 10-15 kilometers, which is about seven or eight miles, you get to some Arab villages. Because of all the tension between the Jewish and Palestinian populations, there is very little contact or communication between the Jewish and Arab people here. In fact, there is too much tension between Jews and Palestinians. So, it is unpleasant, but that is how it is.

Continue to Part II

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